I keep reading about the LTE-U/LAA dust up and deciding that, as I predicted back in January, this has become the epic Spectrum Game of Thrones. Which means it’s time for an epically long series of Insanely Long Blog Posts.
For those just tuning in, I can sum up this issue as follows: should we worry that wireless carriers are looking to deploy a protocol developed for the 4G licensed world (LTE, or Long-Term Evolution) over unlicensed spectrum (called “LTE-U” for LTE over unlicensed or “Licensed Assisted Access,” for reasons I explain later) will “kill” Wi-Fi — for various values of the word “kill.” You can read some stuff on this from my Public Knowledge colleagues here and here.
Let me give you the headline version:
- Can you build a version of LTE-U that plays nicely with Wi-Fi? Yes!
- Can you build a version of LTE-U that looks like it should play nicely but when you deploy it over hundreds of millions of devices it would stomp all over Wi-Fi and crush it flat totally by accident? Absolutely!
- Can you make and deploy a version of LTE-U where it plays nicely unless the mobile carrier decides it doesn’t like competition from Wi-Fi first providers of rival mobile video and voice services? You bet your sweet patootie!
A lot of the argument you see in the press and from the LTE-U supporters has to do with whether the LTE-U Forum (more on them later) have the best interests of wireless users at heart, have gone to great lengths to make sure LTE-U will play nice with Wi-Fi, have released their specs on the LTE-U Forum website, etc. etc. But none of this addresses the points above. What happens if you put this out there and stuff goes bad, either by accident or intentionally.
To understand the thinking here, imagine Qualcomm and the rest of the LTE-U Forum are Iran building a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes. Google and the Cable industry (and us public interest types, for all that anyone notices) are Israel and the Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Iran/LTE-U forum maintains they are building their nuclear programs for peaceful purposes. GOOG/Cable asks how they can be certain, given that the same technology might (a) screw things up accidentally; and, (b) give the carriers the capability to screw things up intentionally, if they ever start to feel the competitive heat. Qualcomm, LTE-U Forum, et al. are shocked, hurt and offended that anyone could even suspect such a thing, despite everything Qualcomm has done in the last 3 years to turn LTE-U into a “Wi-Fi killer”, and despite some of the biggest global carriers telling 3GPP to shut out non-carriers from first generation of LTE over unlicensed. According to Qualcomm, the only reason anyone would question the peaceful intentions of LTE-U Forum is for anticompetitive reasons.
But here’s the complicated thing. As I’ll explain below, it’s not like LTE on unlicensed is intrinsically bad. There are lots of really good pro-competitive reasons for carriers to start using LTE on unlicensed. Heck, it may ultimately turn out that a stand alone version of LTE on unlicensed is as useful (or even more useful) than Wi-Fi is today. Who knows? That’s the beauty of the unlicensed band — innovation without permission and all that good stuff.
This puts the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a rather awkward position. On the one hand, the FCC recognizes the real problem of LTE-U, accidentally or intentionally, messing up Wi-Fi. Additionally, while Wi-Fi is in the unlicensed band and must therefore accept whatever interference comes its way, is only ONE of many, many protocols, etc., you don’t let companies with the obvious incentive to screw up Wi-Fi develop and deploy a potential Wi-Fi killer with no safeguards. But since the success of the unlicensed space comes from its flexibility and easy deployment, how do you not ultimately approve some version of LTE-U/LAA? Are we going to lock in Wi-Fi as the protocol for unlicensed the way LTE is the protocol for mobile wireless? That could be just as awful for the future of innovation as letting LTE-U/LAA trash the place.
To make sure all you Tales of the Sausage Factory Readers know what’s going on, I bring you yet another in my occasional “Insanely Long Field Guide” series. Below, I cover everything from a brief refresher on what the heck is “unlicensed spectrum” v. “licensed spectrum,” the history of what’s going on here, and why I focus on Qualcomm rather than the wireless carriers as the chief bad guys here. However, as this is too long even for me, I will need to break this up into two insanely long pieces. In Part 2, I’ll explain about the FCC, why it got involved, why this is so complicated from the FCC’s perspective, and what the FCC can do about it.
But first, our insanely long background briefer below . . . .